The myth of the selfish workers

April 13, 2010

Alan Maass, author of a newly published edition of The Case for Socialism, examines a favorite myth of conservative ideologues--that human beings are naturally selfish.

PETER ROBINSON knows what all the fuss is really about in California.

The Hoover Institution fellow and Wall Street Journal commentator watched the protests and strikes during the March 4 Day of Action to defend public education in California--from his ivory tower vantage point at prestigious (and private) Stanford University--and recognized immediately what was driving the students, teachers and staff who participated.

What was it? Students' fear that they might not be able to afford a 32 percent fee increase at University of California campuses next fall? Teachers' frustration that they'll face larger-than-ever class sizes with the next round of education cuts? Campus workers' bitterness at furloughs and worse?

No, no and no. Robinson explained on the Wall Street Journal editorial page that the March 4 protesters were displaying their "Me Generation" selfishness--and an "entitlement mentality and self-absorption that has come to dominate much of higher education" to boot.

"We have here the vocabulary of the peace movement, of the struggle for decent conditions for migrants and other exploited workers, and of the civil rights movement," Robinson wrote. "Yet what did the protesters demand? Peace? Human rights? No. Money. And for whom? For the downtrodden and oppressed? No. For themselves."

Faculty, staff and students picket San Francisco State University during the March 4 Day of Action
Faculty, staff and students picket San Francisco State University during the March 4 Day of Action (Josh On | SW)

It's a peculiar position for Robinson to take--a once-upon-a-time speechwriter for Ronald Reagan upset that so many people were obsessed with grubby material considerations like money. Rather than the values that one always associates with Reagan, like peace and human rights.

Livia Bustamante sees things differently. She's a counselor at the City College of San Francisco, and on March 4, she was collecting signatures from people interested in getting involved in future activism.

"I work in the office of [Extended Opportunity Programs and Services], and I saw how budget cuts affected a lot of students," Bustamante explained to a contributor to's journal from the Day of Action. "We have no idea what we'll have in the fall. A lot of people who used to go have stopped going to school, because they can't afford to pay tuition, food and books."

If Robinson considered this point of view, he might conclude that the March 4 protesters were speaking out for the "downtrodden and oppressed"--themselves.

THE TRUTH is that people like Peter Robinson have a selective concern about greed and selfishness. It's directed at those who have little and who try to organize to get a bit more. But greed and selfishness in the corporate boardrooms--that's a different story.

For example, one of the most common explanations for the mortgage crisis is that low- and middle-income people started "living beyond their means" when they bought houses they couldn't afford. Fox News' Michelle Malkin called them "predatory borrowers...who secured financing and bought a home...with little money down, and bogus or no income verification."

You'll search in vain, however, to find Malkin use the word "predatory" to describe a Wall Street firm like Goldman Sachs, the super-bank that made money coming and going in the 2000s--by fueling the investment boom based on the sub-prime mortgage mania, while simultaneously placing financial bets, for hundreds of times its actual assets, that the bubble would burst.

Malkin and Fox News are quick to denounce people who were "greedy" to own their own home. But they are adamant opponents of even lukewarm measures to re-regulate Wall Street proposed by Democrats, because that would hinder the functioning of the free market--or, put another way, place slight controls on a system of organized greed.

The double standards are so obvious--yet they can be found on all kinds of issues. Teachers are accused of selfishly putting their interests before schoolchildren when they try to keep class sizes down or stand up for their union or insist on decent pay. But the same disapproving voices go silent when it comes to the six-figure salaries of school administrators or the contracts that guarantee an income for private charter operators.

Barack Obama got into the act recently with an old favorite--complaining about the salaries of sports superstars. Asked by Bloomberg BusinessWeek whether ordinary people might bear a grudge toward the likes of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who paid himself a $17 million bonus last year, Obama replied, "Listen, $17 million is an extraordinary amount of money. Of course, there are some baseball players who are making more than that and don't get to the World Series either, so I am shocked by that as well."

Of course, there's one small difference: Carlos Beltrán didn't help push the world financial system to the brink of collapse. Dimon did.

Those like Dimon at the top of Wall Street and Corporate America are rewarded for their greed even when they do nothing of value to society or the economy as a whole.

On the contrary, many of the most revered companies in American business are, from any rational point of view, destructive forces--from the Wall Street hedge funds that bet on financial crisis, to the insurance giants that profit from restricting access to health care, to the military contractors that manufacture the means of destruction.

Capitalism is organized around its rulers putting their own selfish interests before those of anyone else. This is supposed to be how the system produces more for everybody in society, but the experience of the vast majority is that what capitalism does best is produce inequality--a society divided between haves and have-nots.

The first principle of the free-market system was put well by Larry Ellison, the megalomaniacal head of software giant Oracle, and perennially among the top five richest men in the world. Ellison is known for paraphrasing the 13th century warlord Genghis Khan: "It's not enough that we win; everyone else must lose."

THAT STATEMENT perfectly captures the dog-eat-dog dynamic of capitalism. Thus, one of the first goals of a socialist society would be to put an end to capitalism's endless competition and mad scramble to get ahead at the expense of others--to reorganize society on the basis of solidarity and cooperation.

But saying this prompts one of the oldest objections to socialism--a very strange one, when you think about it. The objection is that human beings, given a chance to live in a world that promised a livelihood for themselves, their families, whole communities and ultimately everyone in the whole world, just won't have anything to do with it.

Greed and selfishness are part of our human nature, we're told--so we wouldn't tolerate a world of equality, even if it could be achieved.

The idea of human nature is useful to those who want to defend the status quo. After all, if human beings will always want more than the next person, then any attempt to make equality the defining principle of society is either doomed to fail or to make matters worse.

But from any other point of view, it doesn't make a lot of sense.

First of all, the idea that human beings are naturally selfish is hard to square with the acts of selflessness that are commonplace even under capitalism--parents' sacrifices for their children, family members' concern for their loved ones, people's commitment to their neighborhood or community.

This spirit of solidarity can extend literally around the world in times of crisis--think of the offers of help from across the globe after the destruction of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina or of Haiti after this year's earthquake.

It's true that the spirit of giving doesn't run through the whole of society. In particular, it seems to shrivel up and die the higher you get up the income ladder. Statistics from charitable organizations bear out the timeworn truth that people who can afford it least typically give the most of themselves.

Of course, the capitalist system operates on the basis of competition, violence and greed, so we see expressions of these social ills throughout society. But they are better explained by economic and social circumstances, not some unchanging human nature. The fact of scarcity--that there isn't enough to go around so everyone can have what they need and want--is what gives rise to competition and the scramble to get by.

What's more, human nature can't explain the enormous variations in what different societies through history understood as "natural."

For example, the system of private property is seen as natural under a capitalist society. But in the feudal societies that existed in Europe until a few hundred years ago, it was "natural" that property should be claimed by a hereditary monarch and assorted aristocratic hangers-on. And when explorers from those societies journeyed to the "New World," they encountered Native American societies that couldn't comprehend why control of property should be anything but collective.

In other words, change the social circumstances, and "human nature" changes.

One more point: Not only do changed social circumstances produce changed people, but, importantly, people change themselves in the process of changing their circumstances.

This is the important lesson of struggle throughout history--that attempts to win social change, however modest, open the eyes of the participants to bigger questions. They challenge the prejudices drummed into people by capitalist society, and they rouse a further sense of solidarity and commitment to justice.

The socialist scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote:

Why imagine that specific genes for aggression or spite have any importance when we know that the brain's enormous flexibility permits us to be aggressive or peaceful, dominant or submissive, spiteful or generous? Violence, sexism and general nastiness are biological, since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality and kindness are just as biological--and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish.

It follows that the struggle to create the circumstances for these positive behaviors to flourish is the key. Basically, the socialist case is this: If the material circumstances that give rise to competition, greed, violence and all the rest are eliminated, then we can imagine humanity acting permanently on the basis of the motivations we value: love, kindness, solidarity, hope.

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